Human beings have evolved in such a way that we do most of our sleeping at night. Under normal circumstances, even so-called “night owls” tend not to stay awake all night long without very good reason. Physical pain, insomnia, or intense anxiety may banish sleep from our eyes, but so also might sheer anticipation or overwhelming joy. A sense of urgency may compel us to remain awake, when something or someone simply cannot or will not wait until morning: a newborn infant, a dying friend, or an impending deadline. Night may afford a precious window of opportunity, when the world is quiet and we are unburdened by the duties of our waking hours. Artists, writers, musicians, aspiring comedians: all these know a form of passionate asceticism as they labor at their primary vocation long into the night, especially if they work during the day at other paid professions. And night has always been a sacred time for lovers of all sorts, giddy with the rush of newfound or newly rekindled intimacy. The night hours become an inner sanctum of privacy enfolding the union of lover and beloved.
In today’s gospel lesson we encounter one of the few, tantalizing glimpses of the nocturnal life of Jesus – who loses sleep for the love of God.
“Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
In one line, Luke’s subtle highlights and shadows render not just a person, but a personality. In Luke’s many portraits of Jesus, we meet a man who is drawn into intimate, moment by moment communion with the God he knew as Father. We encounter a person filled with power by the Spirit of God, led by the Spirit to astonishing new heights and depths of self-offering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Luke’s Jesus spends the whole night in prayer.
In the first chapter of Mark, we read of a similar scenario: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Whether it is Jesus the night owl or Jesus the early bird, both evangelists portray a man intent upon encountering God in stillness, darkness, and solitude.
But night is also a time of looming threat and hidden danger in scripture. In all of the gospels, Jesus is betrayed at night. He spends the final hours prior to that crucial turn of events in prayer, while three of those he named apostles fail to remain awake in prayerful solidarity, as he had asked of them.
What do these details offer us as we seek to follow Jesus, day by day – and night by night? What can we learn about prayer with Jesus, to Jesus, through Jesus, in Jesus – who spent the whole night in prayer? I think we learn at least two things. First, our relationship with the night, and all that night represents in this passage, is as non-negotiable as our relationship with the day. Second, the choice to spend ourselves as Jesus spent himself all night with God is imprudent, counterintuitive, extravagant. Yet it is also essential for those who have come to know the wreckless self-giving of God.
This detail in Luke about an entire night spent praying to God precedes several significant moments in Jesus’s waking hours. When day comes, he names Twelve apostles from among his numerous disciples. When day comes, so also comes a great crowd from near and far: to listen, to touch, and to be healed. And when day comes, Jesus will lift up his sleepless eyes upon them all to preach the Beatitudes.
Like sponges, our waking lives become quickly saturated: full of relationships, interactions, activity, stimuli, the expectations of others, the demands we place upon ourselves, the tug of our past and our future. This is a kind of fullness, though unfulfilling without respite. Without some empty space, there will be no room for God to abide. In order to fully live out our callings, to make wise and inspired choices directed by God’s will, to become conduits of God’s healing, or to offer words that reflect Christ’s good news, we must come to know the withdrawal of Christ to the lonely mountaintops, if only from time to time. We must come to know the silence and darkness of night and the curtain of rest it gathers around us. We must come to know a space set apart for God to work in us, and to allow time for such work to unfold without our help or our surveillance. Otherwise, we are in danger of a bloated, blinding, loud, and supremely self-directed journey with God. Our choices will reflect our own will. Our words to others will be mere self-engineered problem-solving. Our words of good news will become platitudes and well-wishing. Our spirits will be stuck at noonday, and fluorescent bulbs will eclipse the flickering of candle or star. We will be awake from dusk until dawn, as Jesus was. But we will now know the night.
In the chapter of our Society’s Rule of Life entitled “Prayer and Life,” I am reminded that I must bring the totality of my existence into the life of prayer. I read, “We are to offer the night to God, as well as the day, our unconscious selves as well as our conscious minds, acknowledging the secret and unceasing workings of the Spirit in the depths of our hearts.”
So I begin again, and again, by offering the night – and doing so without the expectation that I will be rewarded by an equal, automatic share of the day. In staying awake from dusk to dawn, Jesus is not “charging his batteries” so that he can be a more efficient pastor. He is not engaging in mindfulness meditation in order to generate more brilliant ideas or wow his board of trustees. And Jesus is not pulling an all-nighter so that he can ace the final exam. He is doing something for eight to ten hours straight with no obvious utility, in the dark, on a mountaintop. And this is where the imprudence, the counter-intuition, and the extravagance come in. Jesus is not saving up fuel or conserving energy for his big day. He is spending it with wreckless abandon.
It is imprudent to stay up all night writing and re-writing your poetry – unless, as a poet, you cannot do otherwise. It is extravagant to stay up all night making love – unless you are in love. It is counterintuitive that Jesus – already utterly spent after a long day of public ministry – would then give the entire night in prayer to God.
The poet entrusts herself to the Muse, and with breath held, writes the first word. The lover entrusts himself to his Beloved with the same total, empty-handed trust. And in the same way, the Savior of the world entrusts himself entirely to God. And this God imprudently, extravagantly, counterintuitively, graciously fills vessels that are emptied of their own light, their own fuel, their own energy, and their own will.
Jesus deliberately withdrew from the actions and encounters that others had come to recognize as sure proof of his special nature and identity. We do not know the contents of Jesus’s nocturnal prayer. But we have come to know that a pure, prodigal love guided him more surely than the noonday sun in his darkest moments, and that the same love – his love in us – burns pure and clear. Such love grows deep and bold in a space apart, swaddled by the night, with no witness but God alone. And then, spent beyond counting, we meet the new day, new joys, new possibilities, spending the fullness that only God can give.
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